Week 5 / February 28: Fauvism and German Expressionism

Henri Matisse (French, 1869 – 1954), Young Sailor II, 1906, oil on canvas. Vasily Kandinsky (born Russia, worked in Germany and France, 1866 – 1944), Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II), 1912, oil on canvas. Both paintings in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Fauvism and German Expressionism

Fauvism and German Expressionism were the first modern movements in art to develop in the 20th Century. Both movements use abstraction and build upon the developments of the Post-Impressionists in form and content.

While Fauvism is largely considered a ‘formalist’ movement, the German Expressionists use formal characteristics in increasingly ‘expressionistic’ ways with their choice of subject matter providing commentary on contemporary society through which we can utilize a historical approach and a Marxist and/or a psychological approach to understand the meaning of the artworks.

Review the terms and concepts material from week #1 to re-visit a discussion of formal characteristics and the methodologies information as needed.


Henri Matisse and Andre Derain were two of the leading painters associated with the style known as Fauvism with their work showing the abstract direction in modern art that grew out of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism at the beginning of the twentieth century. While the subject matter they preferred – landscapes, still-lives and portraits – was conventional, their style was anything but traditional as they explored the use of bold, arbitrary colors and crudely simplified forms with the name Fauvism, meaning ‘wild beasts,’ given to them as a criticism for their unorthodox treatment of form and color when their work was exhibited in 1905.

Read the Khan Academy introductory essay on Fauvism: Link: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-1010/early-abstraction/fauvism-matisse/a/a-beginners-guide-to-fauvism

Then, read and/or view the videos for the 4 Matisse artworks listed below the essay in the menu bar to the left: Luxe, calme et volupte; Bonheur de Vivre (Joy of Life); Dance I; and The Red Studio

WRITING / NOTE-TAKING EXERCISE: The Khan Academy Fauvism essay is 8-10 short paragraphs of text with images. For each paragraph, pull out the essential terms and concepts and define them in your own words to gather and synthesize this information.

If meaning hinges on understanding a specific vocabulary word, use www.dictionary.com to look up its meaning!

Here is how my notes would look for the first and last paragraphs:

Fauvism – French, first new style of 20th Century – modern

Bright and vivid colors / abstract forms

Bold distinctive brushwork, including obvious visible brushstrokes

Cheerful landscapes and/or figural images, experiments in color and form – does not seem to be the same type of content as Symbolism – not as concerned with narrative

Final Paragraph – my outline would include:

Fauve artists interested in ‘primitivism’

It confirmed their identity as ‘wild’ and showed they were open to new, non-Western forms and objects that were bold and abstract


Read the Met’s summary of Fauvism (adding new information to your notes): LINK: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/fauv/hd_fauv.htm

OPTIONAL: Read another account of Fauvism, from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. As you read this essay, add to your growing notes for Fauvism with any/all new information. Link: http://www.nga.gov/feature/artnation/fauve/index.shtm

Navigating this essay: Below the text on each page, use the > forward arrow to navigate through the entire essay, which will explain Fauvism, Matisse, Derain, and end with a brief introduction to Braque, who goes on to form Cubism with Picasso, and then late-Matisse. This essay may have many vocabulary words that are new to you.


The concept of primitivism is related to Western colonialism. As modern artists sought new directions in their work, they began to look at the non-Western objects from colonial territories that were for sale in Europe and exhibited in ethnographic museums. These objects, removed from their context within the communities and cultures that created them, were important sources of visual influence for many artists in the beginning of the 20th Century, just as japonisme was during the mid-to-late 19th Century. Matisse, Picasso and the German Expressionists will have each found different things to appreciate or incorporate from these non-Western African sources.

To fully understand what is meant by ‘primitivism’ as discussed in the Fauvism essays, read the Met Museum essay “African Influence in Modern Art”. Link: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/aima/hd_aima.htm

Keep thorough notes about this material as well. What visual characteristics did modern artists use from these African sculptures and objects in the development of their own individual styles and visual languages of form?

See slides related to primitivism in the week #5 powerpoint.

German Expressionism

German Expressionism is a large and varied movement that encompasses many different interesting and innovative artists working in a range of media, including painting, sculpture and printmaking, which was a preferred medium for many German Expressionists.

There are two major groups associated with German Expressionism – the Brücke group and Die Blaue Reiter group. Brücke means ‘bridge’ and Die Blaue Reiter means ‘the blue rider.’ We will focus our discussion of German Expressionism on these two groups.

In the discussion of Fauvism, Matisse and the Fauves are concerned largely with formalism in their study of line, color and pattern to use abstraction as a means of engaging the senses and for visual satisfaction. As you learn about the German Expressionists, you will find that as their formal concerns move increasingly towards abstraction, they share many characteristics with the Fauves, particularly energetic lines and bold abstract colors, while their subject matter is clearly different. We see that their concerns are rooted in the modern, urban world around them with their subjects specifically chosen to convey their deeply held opinions and beliefs about society with their depiction of their subject matter reliant on the ‘expressive’ use and treatment of formal characteristics to make these ideas immediate, urgent and compelling when viewed.

We will discuss the historical context in class, but keep in mind that these movements occur in the first decade of the 20th Century in Germany, which began industrializing after France, and unified into a country from small city-states only in 1871. Nationalism is a concept we must consider. World War I begins in 1914.

Continue your note-taking exercises with all of the essays you will read from the online University of Leicester’s German Expressionist Collection. For each paragraph, pull out the essential terms and concepts and define them in your own words to gather and synthesize this information. Here is the link to the introductory area called the Story of Expressionism:

Read brief introduction Story of Expressionism and read each of the two sub-essays contained within the Story of Expressionism:

  • Introduction to German Expressionism within this area read 2 essays: What is Expressionism? and How did it Begin?
  • Expressionist Groups within this area read 3 essays: Independent Expressionist Artists; Die Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider); and Die Brücke (the Bridge)

You should have a good general understanding of the beginning ideas of this style and time period. Now, read about:

Ernst Kirchner, leading painting of the Brücke group:

Vasily Kandinsky is a major artist associated with the Blaue Reiter.

Notice this is not a painting – it is a group of woodcuts that are put together to illustrate a book of poetry. Woodcut is a printing technique and a type of graphic art.

Look around on this website and explore some of the images and biographies for Kirchner and Kandinsky as well as other members of the Brucke (Erich Heckel, Emil Nolde, etc.) and the Blaue Reiter (Franz Marc) as you wish. Think about how and why woodcuts were an important medium for German Expressionists and how abstraction enabled these artists to express complex ideas.

You will hear references to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in some of this material.


WRITING: Short paragraphs: The Brücke group and Die Blaue Reiter:

After learning about these two different artist’s groups and their ideas and values, for each group, write out separate short paragraphs or an outline of bullet points using complete sentences explaining what the choice of the name signifies for each group by considering the following:

What does their choice of name indicate is important to the group members? What does ‘the bridge’ motif symbolize? What does the ‘Blue Rider’ motif symbolize? What do these motifs represent to each group?

What visual characteristics and cultural ideas are important to each group?

Try to explain what each group thought about themselves and their art in relation to the society and culture around them. Do the group names indicate their views of themselves in relation to modern society?

For class next week – summary of the 3 required things to do:

  1. Read and take notes on Primitivism, Fauvism and German Expressionism. 
  2. Complete the two short paragraphs about the two major German Expressionist groups. Bring this to class for in-class peer review. I will check these in, but not collect them.
  3. Finish, type up, proofread and print to turn in the Met Museum #1 assignment at the beginning of class.

Remember / FYI:

The powerpoint is on Blackboard.